Thursday, September 25, 2008

People Say "Why Do You Keep Calling Him a Republican?"

And I keep on replying: because he's playing the same games as one.

One of the most annoying (but interesting) things about following the election in Canada is watching as the entire Republican rulebook is dumped on unsuspecting Canadians' heads, and all the preconceptions about American tactics that Canadians would be "too smart for" or "too moderate for" or "too self-effacing for" are tossed out the window. Almost every play that Harper has made has come directly from the Republican playbook, and an old one at that; but because the Liberals seem to not have the faintest clue how to deal with it, they're brought up for a loss.

Case in point: the crime announcement, where Harper made the promise that he'd lock up 14-year-olds for life for violent crimes. The response of the Liberals? "Criminologists all think that this terrible policy: it's nonsense that won't help crime at all."



It's not ABOUT what's good policy! Yes, of course it is terrible policy. Harper hasn't put forward a single sensible policy proposal since 2006, is this a surprise in some way? It's not about good policy. It's about playing upon the fears of the electorate and their own belief in the superiority of themselves and those they identify with. It's the pandering to the "heartland" that has been part-and-parcel of Republican campaigning for decades, saying "I'll call you moral and hardworking and unpretentious and strong, if you agree that I am as well". It's about saying "because you're all these things, you're better than all those others, they're dangerous and stupid and I'll fight them for you and with you".

That's the game.

A better response would have been "do you really want kids going to adult jail, and learning to be criminals from adult convicts?" Or play on empathy, saying "we believe that people can earn a second chance". Or, heck, play up the cost: "it'll cost billions of dollars to house all these people." There's lots of ways to respond, but appeals to authority aren't one of them.

But the best response might be to reinforce shared identity between "the elites" and "the people". The weakness of Harper's cynical politics of division is that people often hunger for a shared identity and shared belief. Obama's rise has proven that. Even if "we aren't red staters or blue staters, we're Americans" has kind of declined as time has moved on, the basic appeal of the message is sound.

And Canadians hunger for national distinctiveness, too: if the Liberals correctly identified Harper's tactics as right-wing Republican ones, they could ask Canadians "we think we're better than that, don't you"? And people would quite possibly say "yes", because they want to be better. A cheeky series of war-room compare-and-contrasts that places Harper announcements side-by-side with Republican announcements, for example, would get that into the minds of journos, and after that into the minds of the voters. The Liberals should be hammering away day after day after day at the Harper=Republican bit, that brand is POISON in Canada even more than it is in America, but haven't seen a thing.

(The door was already opened by the Puffin bit, but the Liberals never really stepped through it.)

As it is, though, the Liberals (and the NDP, and the Greens, and maybe even the Bloc) aren't really understanding what they're fighting. And that's their problem.

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